English fans will do well to not overhype things just yet but their latest young talented Test batsman looks to have special qualities, writes LAWRENCE BOOTH.
English cricket can be an excitable beast, forever ready to anoint the next big thing, or to claim that such and such an innings was the best played at Lord’s (since the war, on a Sunday, against Sri Lanka). But when Ollie Pope ticked off his maiden Test hundred in Port Elizabeth in January, it didn’t seem too hyperbolic to suggest we might just have witnessed the first of many.
Pope finished England’s first innings unbeaten on 135, having added 203 for the fifth wicket with Ben Stokes. It was the defining partnership of the series, allowing England to take control of the third Test; not long after, they were clinching a 3-1 win at the Wanderers. And it may also prove one of the defining innings of his career.
Not only did Pope, who had just turned 22, lose nothing in comparison with his vastly more experienced batting partner, he went on to unfurl an array of strokes that might have looked more at home in a T20 run chase – including an audacious reverse-pull off Kagiso Rabada and a ramp off Anrich Nortje, two of the fastest bowlers in the world. It was the innings of an old master, not a young shaver; fearless without being feckless. England, clearly, were on to something.
We have been here before. Of course we have: this, as I mentioned, is English cricket. And the lesson ought to be salutary. Late in 2017, the Lancashire opener Haseeb Hameed made a Test debut in India of such assurance that plenty of good judges immediately marked him down for 10 000 Test runs – a figure that, among England batsman, only Alastair Cook has breached. Two games later, Hameed broke a thumb. And when the new English summer came around, he could hardly score a run. He has not played Test cricket since and was recently released by his county. It has all been painful to observe. The fall can be as precipitous as the rise; we make judgements about young batsmen at our peril. And yet …
When Pope suffered his own serious injury, dislocating a shoulder while playing for Surrey last April, he responded with the maturity of a cricketer several years older. Instead of doing the things a normal 21-year-old might do with their unexpected free time – stay out, drink beer, browse Tinder – he set about re-examining his technique with the help of Surrey’s assistant coach, the former England one-day batsman Vikram Solanki.
Pope was not merely passing the time. The previous year, he had made his Test debut against India, batting at No 4 – two places higher than he did for his county – and making scores of 28, 10 and 16. Overkeen to impress, he chased the ball, and paid the price. He was dropped after two games, as England came in for criticism for batting him out of position against India’s potent seam attack.
Now, with the help of Solanki, he decided to work round the kink. To deal better with deliveries on a fifth-stump line, he changed his guard from middle-and-leg to middle: if bowlers were going to tempt him with width, he would be in a stronger position to cash in. It was a smart move. He didn’t want to curb his instincts altogether; he simply wanted to turn a potential weakness into a strength.
The effect was immediate. In his first red-ball game back after injury, Pope made an unbeaten 221 against a Hampshire attack containing Kyle Abbott and West Indies fast bowler Fidel Edwards. It was all the England selectors needed to see: he was chosen for the tours of New Zealand and South Africa, and set about showing why he has a first-class average of almost 60.
Pope has been making an impression ever since he first turned up for training with the Surrey senior squad as a teenager and began treating the likes of Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker – two fast bowlers with international experience – with something close to contempt. Looking on was club captain Gareth Batty, an off-spinner who has also played for England. ‘Ollie was smashing it and scooping it everywhere,’ he said. ‘Straightaway, I thought: “Hello, what have we got here?” He was obviously special.’
After Pope’s hundred at St George’s Park, where he became the youngest England Test centurion since Cook, Batty hadn’t changed his mind: ‘His greatest quality is that he reminds me of Joe Root at the start of his career. You look at Popey and how he dissects the game, and knows how he’s going to match up to certain bowlers. That’s such an impressive thing from a young kid.’
Just as impressive is the way he reacted to a couple of unexpected twists. The first game of his second crack at the highest level had not gone well. At Mount Maunganui, Pope had fallen for 29 and six, on both occasions reaching for wide balls with the impetuosity that had defined those two caps against India. The second dismissal, in particular, was a stinker: a low full toss from New Zealand left-arm quick Neil Wagner that Pope almost fell over trying to reach. Instead, with England trying to bat out for a draw, he toe-ended it into the covers, where Mitchell Santner took a Superman catch. It looked flashy and careless. And as anyone who has followed England’s Test cricket over the past few years will know, their lineup has been full of that kind of player.
28 vs India, Lord’s 2018
10 vs India, Nottingham 2018
16 vs India, Nottingham 2018
29 vs NZ, Mt Maunganui 2019
6 vs NZ, Mt Maunganui 2019
75 vs NZ, Hamilton 2019
61* vs SA, Cape Town 2020
3 vs SA, Cape Town 2020
135* vs SA, Port Elizabeth 2020
56 vs SA, Johannesburg 2020
11 vs SA, Johannesburg 2020
7 matches 11 inns 430 runs
47.77 average HS 135*
At 22 years and 15 days Pope’s unbeaten 135 against South Africa meant he became the youngest England player to score a century since Alastair Cook in 2006.
This feature appears in the current issue of SA Cricket magazine